Fish Tank is a British drama about a marginalised young woman, Mia, on the verge of sexual and social expression. Throughout the film she attempts to forge a relationship with her mother’s boyfriend and find a ‘way out’ of her life on a council estate, where she has been excluded from school and seems distanced from her peers.
It arrived at the BBFC with a strongly positive critical reception following a place in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
The filmmakers did not request a specific category when submitting it but examiners who viewed it felt there was a strong argument for allowing the work to be seen by 15 – 18 year olds. That said it had several classification issues which took it to the borderline between the 15 and 18 catgeories, and required further discussion and consideration.
The key classification issues are very strong language, sex, sex references, recreational drug use, discriminatory terms, possible animal cruelty, and moderate violence.
The strongest issue in classification terms is the five uses of very strong language, within the opening 10 minutes. One is used when Mia speaks to her friend's dad who is rude; at the end of the slightly hostile conversation she asks him to give her friend a message "tell her that I think her old man's a c**t". Soon afterwards, the still ‘stroppy’ Mia meets some peers doing sexy dancing in the grounds of their tower block. A verbal exchange ensues along with some physical scuffling, including one head butt. During the shouting match there are two uses of 'c**t', although neither is particularly clear.
Even later that day Mia has an argument with her mother who is angry with her and grabs her. During the exchange her mother says: "I won't fucking let go you little c**t". This is a particularly strong as it is directed and used to a female character (both often 18 category indicators). However it is important in establishing the strained and aggressive relationship between Mia and her Mother. The last clear use is an argument between Mia and her foul mouthed little sister who, on being called a 'f**k face', shouts "If I'm a fuck face you are a c**t face". Though it is used by a young child, much of the potential offence in the last use is lessened as the exchange is comic, and the child, who swears a lot, is playing with offensive words rather than using them in a truly aggressive or sexual way.
At 15 the BBFC Guidelines say 'The strongest terms (for example, ‘cunt’) may be acceptable if justified by the context. Aggressive or repeated use of the strongest language is unlikely to be acceptable'.
Though some of the uses are shouted, they lack the aggravating factors found in 18 level works such as This Is England or Veronica Guerin where repeated uses of ‘c**t’ were combined with strong aggression, violence and an emphasis on power imbalance. The strongest clear use is Mia's Mother's use which does stand out but justified, given its very clear demonstration of all the strains on their relationship (sexual competition, social embarrassment, pent up anger, need for recognition etc). The uses in the fight between the girls lose impact as they aren't particularly clear.
The strongest sex scene occurs between Connor and Mia's Mother - we see some breast nudity, thighs and writhing and thrusting with lots of accompanying groaning, gasping and moaning. The scene is shot from Mia's perspective and it appears the actor is in the shot. Later Mia and Connor have sex, and although there is some movement there is limited nudity and the scene is darkly lit.
This limited detail was an important consideration, as the actress is playing a character of 15 and was aged 15/16 years old at time of filming, making her legally a child. When a child performer is involved in a sex scene in a film either taking part, as Mia does in the sex scene later, or watching, the BBFC must ensure that there is no likely offence being committed under the terms of the Protection of Children Act.
Here, several factors were taken into account; firstly, that the actress was close to the English age of consent of 16 years old (legal advice suggests a sliding scale of concern with stronger concern over very young performers and less concern about performers close to adulthood). Secondly, the examiners had to explore whether the scenes were lewd or contained real or explicit detail. The scene involving the performer having sex has no explicit detail and is not particularly lewd. There is no nudity and it is clearly a key catalyst for the plot. Her sexual awakening at the hands of the manipulative and irresponsible Connor informs her character development for the rest of the film. The scene witnessed by Mia includes some nudity but again, is a fairly standard film love scene without the detail or tonal qualities which would make it appear pornographic.
There are some throwaway, crude (expletive heavy) sex references but these are partly used by Mia to pretend she is having sex with her new boyfriend and as throwaway references to sex. They aren't pornographic or focussed on in the way they are in either high end gross out sex comedies (eg The Inbetweeners) or films with a focus on pornography. Given that they are used to reflect time and place and to draw some compelling characters within a clear realistic context, they can be accommodated at the 15 category, where BBFC Guidelines note 'There may be strong verbal references to sexual behaviour, but the strongest references are unlikely to be acceptable unless justified by context'.
Mia's hopes of becoming a dancer result in some sultry dancing and practice and an audition scene, where she arrives at a large tacky adult club and watches the girl before her writhe (clothed in underwear). Stronger strip club scenes have been passed at 15 and there are no details which are particularly erotic here – the strong sense of the scene is that it would be terrible if Mia actually stripped in such an environment.
Mia and her boyfriend drink what appears to be cough mixture to get high, and are seen acting a little drunk and exuberant after stealing a piece of a Volvo from a scrap yard. There is no indication what the medicine is and there is no particular emphasis on drug taking - both are more keen to get money to buy alcohol. Mia, who is under age, is seen drinking a lot too. This isn’t glamorised and she is usually seen drinking cheap canned alcohol and often alone. Her drinking is shown as a reflection of the influence of her drinking mother and something she does to alleviate boredom and have fun as she roams aimlessly, no longer in school, waiting for a referral unit, lacking friends and confidantes. There are also several scenes of adults, teens and children smoking, including Mia's much younger little sister and her friend, who share a cigarette whilst watching TV when they've been banished upstairs because their Mum is having a party. The film has no natural appeal to very young children, and though the sight of children smoking is quite shocking, it isn’t being promoted to viewers.
The film also contains some discriminatory terms including 'pikey', 'retard', and 'spastic'. They are used in an implicitly derogatory way, to describe some travellers Mia is friends with and the likely inhabitants of her new school. Discriminatory behaviour isn’t specifically condoned by the film overall.
Fish Tank contains a scene in which, after 'tickling' a fish to the surface, Connor kills it. There are two clear shots of the fish 'breathing' on the surface but both are short. Connor picks up the fish (still moving) and then shoves a stick through its mouth to kill it. Though the scenes are quick it seemed likely on screen that the fish was already dead and that no animals were harmed.
In terms of moderate violence and threat, possibly the strongest scene is when Mia is caught trying to free a chained horse from a traveller site. She struggles and the men hold her. She is clothed but there is a sense of slight sexual menace as she is manhandled and her chest is touched. The scene is brief and handled with discretion, and is important to the plot. The other violence, though low key, has a veneer of truth in its scuffles and hair pulling and sense of lashing out. The strongest bloody moment is a head butt as some teenage girls argue - the victim (a nasty peer of Mia's) is later seen with a black eye. The head butt isn't glamorised and the violence isn't strong enough to challenge the 15 level. There is very minor blood when Mia cuts her foot, a wound we see a few times as Connor dresses it.
When Mia attempts to kidnap Connor's child, possibly as a punishment, the scene, while low key, is tense. It is made worse by the suggestion that Mia has no real plan of action, so the act could be entirely pointless or end in disaster. The little girl is scared and it is quite alarming to watch her coerced and shouted at by Mia who is increasingly frustrated. There is a positive resolution to the scene though and ‘moderate threat’ is permissible at 12A and certainly containable at 15.
When a work contains several issues, some of which put the work on the borderline between two categories. The context is very important, whether that is the context of the individual issues (ie how a word is said, or what a fight is about) but also the broader context of how people are likely to watch a film, how the film might make them feel and any artistic or other special merits of the work. There are bleak moments in this exploration of a young woman’s development and it is set in a realistic contemporary environment. However, though some of the work is down beat there is a clear moral perspective presented to the viewer, with Mia’s capacity to learn from her situation and grow seen throughout. It was also strongly felt that a 15 year old audience (and a 15 level audience) would be well able to move beyond the grim or momentarily offensive or shocking moments of the film and perhaps appreciate its authenticity, depth and intelligence.
Fish Tank was passed at 15 and seen by the BBFC’s Director and a panel of experts in child development, who concurred that - though at the high end of the 15 category - the work was acceptable there.
Fish Tank was selected for National School Films Week in 2010.